When Jessica Wade was invited to Buckingham Palace to receive the prestigious British Empire Medal, she stood out for being a young woman honored for her contributions to science.
Ironically, she was being honored for trying to change that.
The 33-year-old London-based physicist has become something of a phenomenon herself — both an irresistible force and immoveable object — in her very personal campaign to bring more girls to study and work in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
Wade has written more than 1,600 Wikipedia entries for long-ignored women scientists, and she has firm beliefs on ideas on how to support girls interested in the field.
Wade gained notice when, still in her 20s, she began writing the Wikipedia biographies about women and minority scientists who never got their due — from employers, from other scientists, from the public.
As her Wikipedia entries climbed into the dozens, and then into the hundreds, she spoke and wrote more on gender equality in science. She won awards and medals and was cited by Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia.
However, not all of Wiki-world was happy with her. Several of her entries were deleted by other Wikimedians, as the most influential contributors and editors are called. She told TODAY.com that they said a handful of the women she wrote up were not all that well-known.
Wade said that’s right, that’s the problem: they should be better known.
One example was Clarice Phelps. Wade heard about the young African-American nuclear chemist, and wrote a Wikipedia bio describing her work on a team that discovered a new periodic-table element at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
The Phelps entry bounced on and off Wikipedia as critics deleted it and Wade defended it. In the end, Wade won, and Phelps’ entry is back on Wikipedia for good.
Meanwhile, Wade’s own Wikipedia entry — written by others, not her — has grown to 10 printed pages.
As Wade pursues her effort to make sure women scientists are known, she also has beliefs on how to make sure the next generation gets the support they need.
She said girls don’t need “whiz-bang” experiments at school assemblies: visiting scientists do their show, pack up, depart and nothing changes. Instead, girls and students of color need to be coached and mentored on what to study, and when.
“People assume girls don’t choose science because they’re not inspired,” Wade, 33, said in a recent interview. “Girls are already interested. It’s more about making students aware of the different careers in science and getting parents and teachers on board.”
Women make up only 28 percent of the U.S. work force in STEM, according to the American Association of University Women, and only one in five current engineering or computer science majors are women. Women in STEM earn $60,000 a year, compared to $85,000 for men, according to the American Association of University Women, a non-profit organization that focuses on equity for women.
“Ultimately, we don’t only need to increase the number of girls choosing science, we need to increase the proportion of women who stay in science,” said Wade, whose doctorate research at Imperial College in London has been widely cited for advances in digital display technology for TV, computer and phone screens.
One key, she said, is better high school science teachers. “We’re suffering a huge shortage of skills-specialist science teachers across the U.S. and the U.K.,” she said.
Wade said schools should make it easier for girls and students of color to apply for admissions, grants, fellowships and promotions.
“What do you need to do? Who do you need to speak to? When do you need to make that application? Who should be your cheerleader or supporter?”
She believes schools need to be upfront about their policies on bullying and sexual harassment; universities must provide affordable child care on campus; and conference organizers should provide day care and grants for those with caring responsibilities.
Wade, who grew up the daughter of two physicians and had supportive teachers at private schools, realized at a young age that most people were not as lucky.
“I genuinely believe that science is better when it’s done by diverse teams,” she said.
“It’s also important because we’re designing new technologies or new scientific solutions to global problems, we want the teams of people creating them to reflect the societies that they’re serving.”
“Even if you don’t care about any of that, the world desperately needs more scientists and engineers,” Wade added. “Science can help solve the world’s biggest challenges — climate change, antibiotic resistance, emerging pandemic-inducing viruses.”
Looking back on her inclusion in the late Queen Elizabeth’s 2019 Birthday Honours list, Wade hopes young women scientists will become commonplace at future ceremonies.
And she hopes they will enjoy it as much as she did.
“It was pretty wild to be honored by the royal family,” Wade recalled. She didn’t meet the queen, but she did take along her mother, Dr. Charlotte Feinmann, to Buckingham Palace.
Her father, Dr. John Wade, couldn’t attend, but Jess Wade did her best to make it up to him.
“I took a Tupperware,” she confided, “to sneak some royal sandwiches home to my dad.”